The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985 and I never would have read it if Audible had not commissioned Claire Danes to read it.
I know that it should not matter that famous authors are reading famous books, but this series has excellent quality narrations. (Others in the series that I have listened to are The End of the Affair and The Wizard of Oz).
Claire Danes give a very flat narration, which is perfect for the book. The narrator, OfFred, is the first generation after the US has been taken over by a theocratic government. The coup d’état was started when a small group of highly placed officials were behind a mass assassination of the President and the entire Congress. The assassination was blamed on Islamic terrorists and a state of emergency was called.
Within a short period of time, a number of changes were put into place, under the guise of keeping people safe. Eventually women were prevented from working (because of high unemployment), the monetary system was changed and women lost all independence.
Simultaneously, a number of environmental disasters resulted in widespread fertility problems.
The story unfolds slowly with a lot of flash backs. And the timeline doesn’t quite make sense. The central part of the story is the cultural changes that mean that only high officials have wives. Children are highly prized, but because very few women can get pregnant, all women are in one of four categories (later a fifth is revealed). There are the Wives (mostly older high class infertile women married to officials), the Marthas (women that work in households, cooks, nurses, maids, etc), Handmaids (younger, fertile women), and the Aunts (the older women that run the system and train the Handmaids).
There is a vaguely Christian overlay to the system. Martha is obviously a reference to Jesus’ friend Martha that worked hard. The Handmaid is a reference to the story of Rachel and Leah who gave their handmaids to Jacob so that they could have the status of children through another woman. Other biblical references also occur, but it is only imagery. There is very little theological justification.
It is not unusual for dystopian and speculative fiction writers to blame a fundamentalist uprising for the destruction of society. Robert A. Heinlein used several variations of this in his books. Religion is one of the ways that it is possible to think of that people would blindly follow leadership down a path that they otherwise might not. There were certainly religious elements in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian or dictatorships in history.
I understand why this is considered a feminist dystopian vision. Atwood is showing why women need to have independent political and economic power. And sex roles, contraception, political power and other traditional feminist themes are clear.
But parts of this book just do not make sense. When the narration is being told OfFred (all women have lost their independent names and are only named in relation to the men around them) is less than 10 years from before the transition. But she frequently says she has forgotten what things were like before. When she references the wall that keeps her in her community she says that it has been there from before she can remember, which clearly isn’t true.
The cultural transition seems to have happened too fast.
That being said, the book is well written and compelling. I listened to the audiobook, so the complains about the transitions, the lack of quotation marks, and other oddities of the text that other reviewers mention did not bother me.
It is interesting to compare this to the female focused recent dystopian novels Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched or even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There is much less focus on the place of women in the recent books. Yes, all dystopian books suggest that the world is a hard place for women. But then it is a hard place for everyone in dystopian novels.
There is a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale that I think captures the difference. OfFred eventually starts building a relationship with her commander. At one point they are talking about the transition and he says, “Better never means better for everyone. For some better means worse.” There is an honesty in that that I think is true about our current society as well as Atwood’s fictional future.
What makes dystopian books compelling for me is that for the most part they are are the result of a failed attempt at Utopia. Utopia, while a frequent Christian desire, is only found in a world to come.